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Obongjayar's Defiant Songs Of Self-Reliance


London-based musician Obongjayar is ready to reclaim his Nigerian roots.


OBONGJAYAR: (Singing) You matter to me. You matter to me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Born Steven Umoh, the name of Obongjayar, for him, is about power. That was on his mind recently when Nigerians were added onto President Trump's list of people banned from the United States.

OBONGJAYAR: The world has always been like this. People who are of lesser power and lesser pull always get stomped on. As a black person, as a black man, as a Nigerian, I think it's also my responsibility as a person to do the best that I can to get some power where it's not a point where I'm looking to someone else for help or looking to Trump to allow me into America. I should be able to bargain with someone in that position, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Obongjayar's new album is called "Which Way Is Forward?" And his music is about strength drawn from self-reliance. It's also about the cultural heritage he discovered as an adult. Obongjayar grew up in Nigeria, which was a former British colony.

OBONGJAYAR: We were being taught the British syllabus before independence. And I didn't really know anything about my heritage, even going to the fact that, in schools, you were being taught English as the main language. And you're not really being taught about the immediate community I was in. I felt more equipped for the U.K. and not as equipped to live in the country that I was born and raised in.


OBONGJAYAR: (Singing) Look what you've done. Don't you turn your back (unintelligible). Look what you've done. Enough is enough.

The year I turned 18 is the year I moved to London. But my self-growth, my personal growth didn't really happen until I left London for university at Norwich, which is east of England. And I pay it to the people I met over there who introduced me to a whole bunch of stuff musically, literature, lots of different things that made me really think about life in the way I do now.


OBONGJAYAR: (Singing) Up like sun, down like sun, still sun - I know who I am. This is not the end.

Musically, like, when I was in Nigeria, I was lonely, but I was listening to a lot hip-hop - 50 Cent, Lil Wayne, Kanye West - listening to a lot of the American stuff that was coming into the country. But as time passed, when I moved to Norwich, got again, introduced to the older stuff, like the Afrobeat, the highlife. And it's weird because, when I was in Nigeria, that stuff was being played, but we just weren't interested in it because we kind of looked at it as old-people music. You know, I look up to someone like Fela Kuti because he was very steadfast in what he believed in. And he went for it fully and did it globally without changing who he was. He didn't compromise. You know, that's what I try to do when I make music - is just say it how you feel it, you know? Someone wants to have a conversation - if your - you might be wrong. You might be right. But just say it.


OBONGJAYAR: (Singing) I'm not afraid of anything - up like sun, down like sun, still sun - up like sun, down like sun, still sun.

Defiant that music was - and it made me think about the music I wanted to make and what I wanted my music to say.


OBONGJAYAR: (Singing) I wake up every morning, and I run. I run, run for my life.

My song "10K" is about just getting up and trying to survive every day. No food for lazy man - there's an adage in Nigeria that goes that way. That's a lot of people's realities, you know? You wake up every morning. The first thing you do is go to work, or you figure out how you're going to survive until the end of the day because it's so competitive out there. If you're not actively trying to do that, you're going to get stomped on. Someone's going to run past you.


OBONGJAYAR: (Singing) God's own children, keep your head up. Press your weight against the winds that try to throw you. This place is ugly. Don't let it rob you of your face, of your grace and of your body.

My song "God's Own Children" - there's a line in there that says, wash the war from your breath. It's time for action. I feel like there's a lot of talk and a lot of anger in the language and in the way that we resist these things. But there's not a lot of action. And no one's really doing anything, you know? Action doesn't necessarily mean violence. It can mean something as simple as recycling or changing the way you - your diet or changing your lifestyle. So I think we need to be a lot more involved with our world rather than pointing the finger.


OBONGJAYAR: (Singing) And in this dance, we dance together. On our streets is Armageddon. In this fight, we fight together - no retreat and no surrender.

When I say, in the dance, we dance together - on our streets is Armageddon - in this fight, we fight together - no retreat and no surrender - it's all about the collective mindset of coming together as a unit to make change in the society that we live in. It's really, really, really down to us as people to pick ourselves up or stay on the ground.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was musician Obongjayar. His new album "Which Way Is Forward?" is out now.


OBONGJAYAR: (Singing) Keep on moving. It's your weapon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.